The Turn of the Screw at the Open Air Theatre review *****

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The Turn of the Screw

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, ENO, 29th June 2018

Benjamin Britten. The Turn of the Screw. Members of the ENO Orchestra conducted by up and coming talent Toby Purser. Timothy Sheader directing. A Soutra Gilmour set. At the Open Air Theatre. On a beautiful late June evening. In the company of the SO, (who loves her Henry James and surprised herself by enjoying Deborah Warner’s staging of Death in Venice in 2013 at the ENO), BUD and KCK. Of course I was going to love this.

One of the aims here was to extend young BUD’s operatic education beyond Mozart. As he remarked here, not a lot of tunes.. Not sure I agree but there is no doubt in my mind that Britten’s music became darker through time, cleverer, from an already very high base, more progressive and less conservative, whilst never embracing the fearsome avant-garde, and richer, even as textures got sparser. The tonality is tempered with lots of (lovely)  dissonance.

I think TTOTS occupies a key place in the development of all of Britten’s art. It was composed in 1954, just after Gloriana, and three years after Billy Budd. In the same year Britten composed his Canticle No III, Still Falls the Rain for tenor piano and, Britten’s favourite, horn. This is recognisably BB, like a trip-hop version of the Serenade Op 31, but this, and the Winter Words song cycle from 1953, seem more melancholic than the warmer equivalents before the war. Britten himself said that his music was forever changed by the WWII, as was true for pretty much all Western art, notably by a visit to Belsen, but I don’t think this really becomes apparent until the mid 1950’s.

Anyway TTOTS is definitely an example of the “less is more” BB where surface effect is toned down a little, (though not jettisoned entirely, there are plenty of ravishing musical ideas here), in the service of greater structural and emotional depth. And structurally this is a score of genius as a tightly wound serial “screw” theme and set of 15 variations built on a different semitone, opens each scene, ratcheting up the tension. So, you see BUD, there is a “tune”, you just hear it in a different way.

Which I think is why it is such an effective piece of musical theatre, an opinion with which BUD heartily conferred. TTOTS is apparently BB’s most performed opera. And probably the most performed opera in English. And, after your man Puccini, probably the most performed opera from the C20. Certainly the most performed of those operas written since the war. In part this reflects its chamber structure. With just 13 instrumentalists and a cast of 7, this is no big budget affair. As was intended. However I also think it reflects near perfect synthesis of story, libretto and music. All three offer a sufficient challenge to an audience but in no way is this intimidating. It always takes a bit of time to get swept up into a Britten opera, but swept up you will be, even if it isn’t the massive, warming, rush of Mozart.

In retrospect it was pretty much a nailed on certainty that BB and Myfanwy Piper would alight on Henry James’s novella. BB, and his various librettists, always started with an artistic inspiration. Usually the story revolved around an “outsider” estranged from the society around him. There’s usually some sort of spiritual dimension. And, nailed on, there will be some sort of uneasy “corruption of the innocent” theme. TTOTS has all of the requisite elements in spades. Better than this though is the ambiguity embedded in the story. What really happened at Bly? What was, or is, the nature of the relationship between Miles and Flora, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint? Who, and what, can we see? Who, and what, do the characters really see? After all only the Governess apparently sees the ghosts in HJ’s original. Is this all in the Governess’s mind then? How are we being manipulated? Strange to think then that the story came to HJ via none other than the future Archbishop of Canterbury in 1895.

Myfanwy Piper’s text reads like a poetic, musical impression of Henry James’s book but it picks its highpoint carefully. On to this BB’s score is perfectly stitched. In the book, told through the first person narrative of the Governess, it is up to you to imagine what happens. In my estimation, and those way smarter than me, its psychological depth and disturbing themes, take it beyond your bog standard gothic ghost story. In the innumerable film and TV versions, the ghosts can be made to seem like the extensions of everyday reality that HJ intended (I think), thanks to the trickery of the camera, but you all get one view, one take on the story. In a version for stage as here, (or notably The Innocents or the 2013 Almeida take), Quint and the Governess are undeniably corporeal, (any design team which could escape that mortal fact would get my money, no question), especially if they are going to sing, and the children are going to sing to them, and scenes unfold where the Governess is not present. So the mystery and ambivalence has to come from the music. And I cannot imagine anyone better than Britten at facilitating this.

But BB and MP take things a lot further. Take Miles’s famous Malo song that is repeated by the Governess at the end. Haunting for sure with viola, horn and harp. Malo in Latin could either mean “bad”, “to prefer” or an apple, symbol of innocence. “I would rather be… in an apple tree … than a naughty boy … in adversity”. The Latin words recited in the lesson prior to this contain all sorts of sexual references. Miles wanting “his own kind” and reflecting on his “queer life”. Mrs Gross’s line about Quint being “free with everyone” allowed to linger in the Regent’s Park air. Blimey. This is how the opera adds a new dimension contrasting the order and convention that the Governess clings to with the liberty that Quint offers whilst not seeking to mask the implication of abuse.

So, as you can see, I am a fan of this opera. What about the production then. Sandra Gilmour has imagined the remote country house of Bly as a large, dilapidated conservatory fronted by overgrown grass and a jetty leading to the “lake” and into the audience. It was amazing. Timothy Sheader, after a decade at Regents Park, now knows exactly how to use the unique space to best effect. TTOFTS was pushed out to an 8pm start to ensure sunset and early twilight matched the change in dramatic mood in the story and provided a perfect backdrop for lighting designer Jon Clark to show off his skills. Quint and Jessel make entrances from within the audience. Even the parakeets flew over on cue, “the birds fly home to these great trees”, at our performance. The debacle of last years Tale of Two Cities is entirely forgiven. The pacing was sublime and the musicianship top notch, especially, the viola of Rebecca Chambers, the clarinet of Barnaby Robson, the horn of John Thurgood and the harp of Alison Martin. Putting the orchestra inside the conservatory, behind a panel of ancient glass, thus lending them a ghostly quality, was a genius touch.

On this evening ENO Harewood Artists Elgan Llyr Thomas played Peter Quint with William Morgan taking the Prologue. Mr Thomas’s tenor voice is clear and direct, through the melismas especially, and fitted the space. I was a little less sure about his wig and beard combo. Anita Watson was a suitably unhinged Governess, for me she was convinced this was really happening, and Elin Pritchard a very disturbing, steampunky Miss Jessel. Janis Kelly, who has in her time played Flora. Miss Jessel and the Governess, now played a protective Mrs Gross. Daniel Alexander Sidhorn’s precociousness made for an arresting Miles though I have to say Elen Wilmer’s Flora was, for me, the more impressive voice. As an actor though Master Sidhorn is the real deal. Simultaneously vulnerable and malign.

Indeed Elen matched the elder Elin in look and movement creating a “bond” between Flora and Miss Jessel as disturbing in its way as that between Miles and Quint, an unexpected bonus. Mind you when Miles dons his purple shirt to match Quint’s and when he takes over from Quint on the piano, (young Sidhorn is either a mighty fine  pianist or an even better “piano mimer”), the audience was bolt upright in their collective seats. And, on top of all of this, Mr Sheader really messed with our heads with a provocatively erotic scene as the Governess, “lost in my labyrinth”, asleep, is joined silently by Quint and Miss Jessel, or more specifically her hair, with Flora’s symbolic dolly and with Miles’s symbolic jack-in-the-box. Oh and did I say Miss Jessel is pregnant here.

One final thing. It’s outside. Which means a little technology is required to keep the volume stable as it were for both ensemble and singers. Which meant every word, with a couple of exceptions when Anita Watson’s soprano heads off to the higher registers, was crystal clear. Didn’t stop me consulting the libretto on occasion but what it did mean is that, for maybe the first time ever, I could savour every word of the libretto, to set alongside this stunning score and this tremendous production. This is what theatre, and opera, should all be about.

 

 

Cave at the Printworks review ****

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Cave

The Printworks, Surrey Quays, 23rd June 2018

Cave is the second collaboration between composer Tansy Davies and librettist Nick Drake. Their last work, Between Worlds, which took as its subject the Twin Towers on 9/11, was superb. It was an immensely moving and sensitive elegy which focussed on the last conversations with loved ones of just five victims trapped together on one floor watched over by a benign Shaman or spirit, superbly directed by Deborah Warner. The audience I saw it with was floored (even if a couple of jaded critics were a bit sniffy).

I have since heard a few of Ms Davies’s very fine works including the premiere of her Concerto for four horns, entitled Forest. She has a way of finding the right shape, sound or phrase to match the intent and mood of her music, without ever serving up the obvious or banal. There is a rhythmic underpinning which I think reflects her familiarity with popular music genres, especially funk and post-rock. Her music can be muscular, industrial if you will, but, equally, she is capable of great lyricism. In more recent commissions she has been afforded the opportunity to work at a larger scale, but there is still a chamber like intimacy to her work, even when it is belting out in full on forte. In short she has the gift, and, even if contemporary classical music isn’t your bag, in fact maybe especially if contemporary classical music isn’t you bag, I defy you not to hear it.

She is also pretty keen on conveying a message in her music. As is librettist Nick Drake. Cave is set in a world disfigured by ecological catastrophe. A man (Mark Padmore) stumbles into a cave. He probably nibbles on some crazy mushrooms. He remembers his daughter Hannah, played and sung by Elaine Mitchener, and, when young, played by Akilah Mantock at my performance. Her spirits fills the cave. That is pretty much the long and the short of it. There are seven scenes in total beginning with the entry of the audience into The Lost River which runs through the cave.

The Printworks in Surrey Quays used to be where the Evening Standard was printed in the pre-digital era. It is a cavernous industrial space, as I discovered on my pre-prandial hike to the loo just ahead of the opening of the opera, which plays host to a variety of events, united in there “alternative” vibe. Perfect for this work. The audience was lined up along both sides of a very narrow, very long space in Mike Britton’s set, covered with, I think, wood bark. and with the seven members of the London Sinfonietta at one end and vast plastic hanging “doors” at the other. It was largely left to the marvellous lighting of Jack Knowles, who despite looking about 5 years old, has a massively impressive list of credits behind him, to conjure up the required magic, along with a sound design from, usual culprits, Sound Intermedia, as well as the electronics of Tansy Davies and Rolf Wallin.

Even with the principals moving up and down the space there were times when the “action” was a bit “laterally compromised”, especially for those of us pig-headed enough to go right along to the end where the ensemble was positioned. On the other hand this perch did afford a perfect insight into all the moving parts of the score, and, at one key point, the vocal pyrotechnics of Elaine Mitchener. She is not your opera mezzo diva. Thank goodness. Usually to be found in repertoire which is even more boundary-pushing than this, she has an extraordinary range of expression. I was spell-bound. For those of us who are regular listeners to Bach, Britten and Baroque, Mark Padmore needs no introduction at all. Here his singing was predictably exquisite. He also put in an acting shift as the Man plagued by his memories and a world that has literally fallen apart around him. I also suspect this won’t be the last I see of the precocious ten year old Akilah Mantock – no fear at all in what must have seemed a slightly odd role when she went to the audition.

Mr Drake’s other job is a poet. No kidding. The second scene, the Echoes, starts out with the Man hearing Hannah’s voice before he goes into an astonishing quasi aria describing his journey into the cave. This is when we see the connection that Ms Davies and Mr Drake intended to make to some of the very first human impacts on the earth. Apparently they went for a trip to have a peek at cave paintings in Niaux in the Pyrenees, which proved a crucial inspiration. I am not surprised, this is where art and nature recognisably first collided.

Scene three, the Cave of Birds, has the Man describing the onset of ecological catastrophe, and some sort of vision, scene four, The Mirror Cracks, is a “rave of agony” as the Man recalls losing Hannah, who “responds” by singing the last part of his “song” backwards. The Tree of Shadows starts with the Man and Hannah remembering a past holiday and then Hannah going a bit preachy as she describes how she wants to save the world from the havoc wrought by the generations which preceded her. A powerful instrumental interlude (with electronics I think) follows, The Storm, which then gives way to a lullaby shared by the two principals which shows off their superb singing. The final scene The River sees the man leaving the cave, presumably to die, but probably healed.

This is an epic myth, or more exactly a parable, and, in that, I was reminded of Britten’s Church Parables, which I don’t think were a direct inspiration, but, for me, have a similar vibe. The scoring is sparse, under the expert baton of Geoffrey Paterson, with most of the colour coming from the winds and brass, the clarinet/bass clarinet of Timothy Lines, contra bassoon of John Orford and horn of Michael Thompson, contrasted with the prominent harp of Helen Tunstall, set against a sort of continuo from Jonathan Morton’s violin and Enno Senft’s double bass. Elaine Mitchener gets to give a hefty whack to a drum at one point and, as I have said, electronics and some other sound effects (plenty of echo) play a major part. Overall you have no difficulty in musically distinguishing the scenes, there are some breathtaking sounds here and no little drama. I was not entirely convinced about the articulation between music, words and message but that probably says more about my pessimism than the creative talent on show here. It is certainly not the fault of director Lucy Bailey.

I don’t want to get more frightened of, and helpless about, the world around me as I get older, but it seems to be happening nonetheless. It certainly does feel like we humans are accelerating towards our inevitable extinction event despite the apparent gift of consciousness. Mother Earth will get over us I suppose. Anyway it is good that Tansy Davies and Nick Drake are not engulfed by this sort of negativity and prepared to make an ambitious stand of sorts in their art. It is also good that they are not cynical about all things “spiritual”. As this piece is sub-titled, courtesy of modern day environmental shaman and prodigious psychedelic drug-taker Terence McKenna, “Nature loves courage”.

At the end, Ms Davies was zipping by to thank the performers. I briefly thanked her. No doubt she thought I was a nutter so apologies but I felt compelled to offer up my appreciation. Thank you.

 

 

Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout at St Luke’s Old St review *****

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Isabelle Faust (violin), Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord)

LSO St Luke’s Old St

JS Bach

  • Sonata no 3 for violin and harpsichord in E major BWV 1016
  • Partita no 2 for solo violin in D minor BWV 1004
  • Sonata no 1 for violin and harpsichord in B minor BWV 1014
  • Toccata for harpsichord in D minor BWV 913
  • Sonata no 6 for violin and harpsichord in G major BWV 1019

The second instalment in Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout’s rendition of the six JSB violin sonatas BMV 1014-1019 following on from the Wigmore Hall in April. (Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Wigmore Hall review ****). Once again they allowed themselves a solo each, but this time some more JSB, in keeping with the Bach Weekend theme, which also celebrated the 75th birthday of the venerable Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

This time I was joined by Bach groupie MSBD. Early start. 11am on a Saturday. I wish every day started this way though.

At times JSB is truly sublime. More so that any other composer. You might find it in the cantatas, others in the masses or passions, or maybe the keyboard, instrumental ensemble works or the cello suites. Not for one moment could I disagree with you but, for me, the apotheosis of JSB’s genius lies in the violin sonatas and partitas, solo and accompanied. Great art induces a state of rapture. Not the nonsense exclusive coach trip into the sky that some befuddled Christians cling on to, but the state of grace, individual or collective, that you can feel inside your whole being when dancing in a club, or breathless and motionless in the theatre, or when your ear sends pure sound to your brain at a concert or when you get lost in a painting. It doesn’t happen much, just as well as that might overwhelm, but it is part of what makes life worth living. I appreciate that this might be a terribly old-fashioned way to think about art but I dare you to tell me I am wrong.

Anyway it happened here. In the final movement of the Partita. The immense Ciaconna. Amongst Bach’s finest creations as the programme says. They’re not wrong. It gets me most times but here, OMG, Isabelle Faust, her violin, St Luke’s, my ears, my brain, the audience, and of course, old JSB all came together as one. This old buffer did his best to hold back a tear. It is so simple, just a basic four bar pattern, (apparently “the harmonisation of a descending tetrachord” – thanks again programme notes). But JSB is able to do so much with it including a huge mood shift about two thirds of the way in. This is when you might just believe that JSB reconciles himself to the early death of first wife Maria – he was to meet Anna just a year later.

The accompanied sonatas came close to their solo cousins. I have banged on before about just how expressive Isabelle Faust is when it comes Baroque violin. She’s pretty handy too when it comes to the rest of the canon. Listen to her recordings of the Beethoven, Bartok and Berg concertos if you don’t believe me. She can even persuade me with her historically-informed interpretations of that Mozart chap. But Bach is where she enters a different realm. She applies an astringent, almost abstract, rigour which just blows me away. And KB, who has a gentler conversation with his harpsichord, is the perfect accompanist. IF doesn’t muck it up with unnecessary and unwarranted vibrato, and both the left and right hand lines for KB are clear and not jangly. This leaves plenty of room for the sonatas to breathe and, in the superb space that is St Luke’s, with the sun streaming in from outside ….. well you can see where I’m coming from.

JSB continued to revisit and buff up the six sonatas throughout his life. Maybe that’s why the old boy perfected his art here. In the early decades of the C18 the trio texture was considered the compositional ideal for chamber music, creating a perfect synthesis of linear counterpoint, full-sounding harmony and cantabile melody, (thanks once more programme notes). Put this trio principle into the hands of the man who got closer to the ideal of perfect harmony than anyone else in the history of Western music, with the melodies driven by the finest of instruments the violin, then obvs it was going to work. JSB created trio works for flute, viola da gamba (which I like) and organ but they don’t come close.

Listen to No 1, BMW 1014. It kicks off with a 5 part texture with double stopping and a 3 part effect on the harpsichord. The two quick movements, (the first 5 sonatas stick to the old skool sonate di chiesa four movement set up with No 6 breaking free into 5 movements), have each of the three lines chipping in together, the perfect realisation of the trio principle with the third movement switching to violin and harpsichord right hand weaving around a left hand bass. No 3 BMW 1016 kicks off with a slow movement where both players can show off their skills, followed by a bouncy fugue, a powerful lament in C sharp minor before rounding off with an extraordinary gallop where the violinist can really show off. No 6 BMW 1019, is very different, with a central solo harpsichord movement flanked by two jolly giant Allegro opener/closers (real faves) and two slow, simple (-ish) shuffles in a kind of canonic form.

Other than the aforementioned divine Ciaconna the Partita No 2 consists of 4 dance movements, an Allemanda, a Corrente, a Sarabanda (which foreshadows the Ciaconna) and a Giga. We have Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Kothen’s Calvinism to thank for JSB’s discovery of all things boogie as he wasn’t confined to elaborate Church music in the Prince’s employment. (We also have the genius Antonio Vivaldi to thank for the twin graces of rhythm and repetition that underpin JSB’s unique ear for inventive sonority).

Other than the Sarabanda thsee dance movements are all monophonic in structure so easy to understand and have a dominant rhythm from which the violin goes off on ever more exciting harmonic excursions. It was a massive hit when first published and performed and remains so to this day. It really is very easy to see (and hear) why. You do not need to have any interest or understanding of classical music to get this. You just need ears and a pulse. So whatever your musical bag, I implore you to listen to it. IT WILL MAKE YOUR LIFE BETTER. I promise.

KB had a little less time to shine though not by much as he picked the most extensive of the six toccatas, BMW 910-916. The D minor 913 was composed when JSB was just 20 as he went AWOL from his job and walked the 450kms to Lubeck to hear Dieterich Buxtehude play. So next time you complain about how tricky it is to get to the Barbican think on JSB’s devotion. It opens with a typical Baroque improvisation, (typical for others that is), followed by a couple of JSB trademark fugues linked by a bridge which shifts tempo and ending with a tierce de Picardie, a major chord at the end of a minor key piece, which JSB was partial too. After the Partita and the first two sonatas this harpsichord piece shifted the mood before the final, jolliest, No 6 sonata. Smart programming and smart playing, (I only know these toccatas from the never surpassed Glen Gould on piano).

So there you have it. This will definitely be a top 10 2018 concert for me and I am pretty sure for MSBD, though I have lined up a few more for his delectation. And I wonder if, by the end of my musical education, I end up realising that no-one topped Bach. It is beginning to feel that way.

 

Venetian Baroque: Academy of Ancient Music at St Luke’s Old St review ****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (violin), Persephone Gibbs (violin), Sarah McMahon (cello), Alistair Ross (harpsichord), William Cater (theorbo)

LSO St Luke’s Old St, 15th June 2018

  • Dario Castello – Sonatas No 10 a 3 Book Two, No 1 a 2 Book One, Sonata No 1 for violin (Book Two), Sonata No 2 for violin (Book Two), Sonata No 12 a 3 (Book Two)
  • Tarquinio Merula – Ciaconna
  • Michelangelo Rossi – Toccata No 7 for harpsichord
  • Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger – Toccata and Ballo for theorbo
  • Francesco Tunrini – Sonata a 3 “il Corisino”

Venice in the early C17 was the hot place for music in the West. The Republic might have begun its long slow decline, having picked fights with the Ottoman Empire and the Vatican, amongst others, but there were plenty of punters who had made big bucks and were looking to spend it. It was certainly a big-time, sexy, funky, party town. Carnival was big business. Public opera, with that genius Claudio Monteverdi in the vanguard, was taking hold. New instrumental ensembles were being tried out. Exquisite brass was set alongside double and triple, or more, choirs in churches, following on from Gabrieli’s innovations in the previous century. (Even the guards telling the snaking hordes of tourists in St Mark’s Basilica to shut up sound musical thanks to the stunning acoustic). The best performers, composers and instrument makers gathered there.

This was the music members of the AAM sought to highlight in this BBC lunchtime concert, built around the sonatas of Dario Castello, which, to an extent, defined the form. He was born around 1590 and died around 1658, though his best known work comes from the 1620s. He was the leader of a wind ensemble, cornetts, sackbutts, shawns, bagpipes and so on, and might have had a job in St Mark’s. His two books of sonate concertate comprise 29 pieces, (five were played here), that alternate retro polyphonic sections with cutting edge, (by 1620s standards), expressive recitative, the stile concitato,  a la Monteverdi. Instruments are specified, including continuo, musicians are expected to be on their game. This simultaneous looking backwards and forwards is what makes this music fascinating if not entirely satisfying.

In addition to the Castello we had a chaconne, a simple bass riff with increasingly inventive variations, dead easy for the Baroque initiate to grasp, from one Tarquinio Merula, a harpsichord Toccata from Michelangelo Rossi, an unusual Toccata and Ballo for theorbo from Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger and a concluding trio sonata from Francesco Turini.

Merula never worked in Venice, (he had positions in Cremona and Bergamo)  but he knew the drill. He was an argumentative chap by reputation but he helped set the tone for the dance vibes of the later Baroque. Rossi came from Genoa, worked in Rome, wrote madrigals and operas, and, despite being a violinist, a book of 20 toccatas, which embrace some dramatic chromaticism and choppy tonality as here. Now you don’t often see a theorbo solo even if you are a paid up member of the Baroque club. The theorbo is that giant-sized lute that the player rests, like a loving parent, on his/her knee. GG Kasperger came to Rome by way of Vienna and was, in terms of theorbo virtuosity, the Charlie Mingus of his day. Turini was also born outside of Italy and published madrigals including some early instrumental sonatas.

I probably don’t need to tell you how very fine the members of the AAM were in this very rarely performed repertoire. Their excitement in exploring the, shall we say, backwaters, of the Venetian School was palpable. Bojan Cicic, as leader of the AAM, has appeared a few times before on this blog, as has Alistair Ross on the harpsichord. William Cater was as eloquent in his explanation of the theorbo piece as he was in its playing, but I was particularly taken by Persephone Gibbs’s playing in the second solo violin sonata of Castello. Great first name. Even better surname. And she leads a Baroque orchestra based in Devon. No relation though. She has talent after all.

 

LSO play Ravel and Mussorgsky at the Barbican review ***

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London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Barbican Hall, 3rd June 2018

  • Ravel – Rapsodie Espagnole
  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 3
  • Mussorgsky arranged Ravel – Pictures at an Exhibition

It has been a few years since I have heard Pictures at an Exhibition live, and I have thoroughly enjoyed Mr Noseda’s way with Shostakovich and Beethoven recently, so I reasoned now was the time to reacquaint myself. Moreover Mr Bronfman’s account of the PC 4 last year, admittedly under the exacting eye and ear of Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian RSO, was pleasurable enough if not earth-shattering (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review *****). And I thought it right to risk another chapter in my ongoing love/hate relationship with Ravel.

The Rapsodie espagnole is a pastiche, of sorts, of Spanish music, in contrast to the rather more rooted offerings of the likes of de Falla, Albeniz and Granados, though Ravel is not the only French composer to have been seduced by all that sultry dance. Indeed when this was composed, in 1907, Maurice was immersed in all things Iberian what with his opera L’heure espagnole and the songs of the Vocalise-Etude. And his particular favourite was that familiar habanera rhythm – which turned into, amongst other things, the cha cha cha we now today. Mind you his mum was Spanish and he was born just over the border in the Pyrenees so it was in the genes/memes.

This was Ravel’s breakthrough orchestra piece and actually pretty much his only full force work that didn’t start in another form or from the piano. Whilst it isn’t based on any specific Spanish melodies there is no doubting where you are. Ravel, of course, was the master of musical and emotional coloration. Yet he doesn’t always surprise. When he does, for me mainly in the chamber, piano and piano concerto works, he can dazzle. When he doesn’t, often as not for me in the vocal works, he can be just a bit too diddly to no purpose. Not as diddly as Debussy who mostly really tries my patience, but still a triumph of style over substance.

Overall, given the material, this was reasonably enjoyable though I wouldn’t seek it out. There is a distinct descending four note ostinato motif that recurs through three of the four sections, with the Habanera being the exception. This helps it all hang together. The LSO was on top of the score, of course, but Mr Noseda’s reading felt a little forced, but not unpleasantly so, until the final Feria where the band cut loose.

This spilled over into the Beethoven where the quiet string theme that opens the C minor concerto shuffled into, rather than glided into, the room to set up the extended orchestral intro of the Allegro. Last time round in Beethoven I felt Mr Bronfman’s precise, delicate playing meant he got a bit bullied by the orchestra. I feared a repeat. As it turned out he was given enough room to breathe and the LSO, especially in the woodwind and lower strings, was on top form, with the Largo the standout. I have heard more convincing overall interpretations, and a bit more whoosh in the Rondo, but this was satisfying enough.

Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain, Vicious, Bonham, Curtis, Johnson, Buckley (x2), Cooke, Gaye, Coltrane, Parker, Parsons, Bolan, Tosh, Lynott, Nelson (PR). Some of my musical “heroes’ who died of unnatural causes, often with a fair bit more left to give, But if you want real rock’n’roll, nearly a century before any of these punters were doing their thing, then Modest Mussorgsky is your man. Obviously, like so many of the above, he was a f*cking idiot to waste his talent mashed up on booze, but, having chosen this course, and he did choose it seeking artistic freedom in this “bohemian life”, he got properly stuck in. Which meant he failed to complete vast swathes of work and didn’t get much beyond the piano and a bunch of songs and the completed opera Boris Godunov. He was a rubbish musician barely caring or knowing about structure or texture but boy could he capture a mood. and in BG he basically captures the essence of Russia.

Anyway there he is above in close up, in Repin’s famous portrait from 1881, which appeared in the marvellous Russia and the Arts collection at the National Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago. He looks a bit rough for sure. Worse still when you realise he was just 42 and died a few weeks later.

Easy to see what the colourist Ravel, as many others have done subsequently, was smitten with MM’s big ideas and couldn’t resist the temptation to smooth off the rough edges. The original piano suite of Pictures at an Exhibition was inspired by a posthumous retrospective of the work of artist Victor Hartmann, MMs mate who died aged 39. Mind you MM’s musical images, as you might expect, went way beyond whatever Hartmann envisioned, but the concept of the exhibition, with the repeated Promenade being us the viewer, holds the whole thing together and adds an ironic, detached air to the bombast. On the piano it doesn’t entirely work but in Ravel’s hands something magical emerges. Ravel used Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition of the piano original so a few changes were made but you get the feeling that MM would have been happy with the result even if he may not have known how Ravel got there.

It might all be very familiar but it the right hands, and the LSO and Gianandrea were the right hands, it can still be thrilling. Bydio, Baba-Yage and the Great Gate of Kiev didn’t disappoint. Boom. If you are a classical virgin and want to find a way into live performance there is no better way. You won’t stay there as you move on, and you may end up thinking it is all a bit daft, but the hairs on the back of your neck will still stand on end whenever you return to it.

Rock’n’roll. Sort of.

 

 

Nicola Benedetti and the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican review ****

Vivaldi (1)

Academy of Ancient Music, Nicola Benedetti (violin), Richard Egarr (director and harpsichord)

Barbican Hall, 31st May 2018

  • Antonio Vivaldi – Concerto for Violin in D major RV 208 “Il Grosso Mogul”
  • Antonio Vivaldi – Concerto for Harpsichord RV 780
  • Mystery Composer – Sinfonia in D first movement
  • Georg Philipp Telemann – Concerto for Violin in A major TWV 51:A4 “The Frogs”
  • Georg Philipp Telemann – Alster Overture-Suite TWV 55:F11
  • Georg Philipp Telemann – Concerto for Four Violins in C major TWV 40:203
  • Antonio Vivaldi – Concerto in F major RV 569

Time to take BUD to a purely orchestral evening, no voices, albeit in the ostensibly easy on the ear form of the two Baroque masters Vivaldi and Telemann. In the company of KCK who was, rightly, keen to hear the prodigious talent of Nicholas Benedetti. And all of us trusting to the capable hands of Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music.

Now to accommodate Ms Benedetti some virtuoso music was required. Even by the Red Priest’s breathless standards the D Major Concerto “Il Grosso Mogul” fits that particular bill with its two written out cadenzas in the outer fast movements. I think this showed NB off to best effect with a sharper delineation between soloist and ripieno than some of the subsequent pieces in this well programmed concert, especially in the stunning slow movement. No-one knows where the name grosso mogul comes from but JS Bach was sufficiently impressed to arrange it for organ, BWV 594.

RV 780 is Vivaldi’s only concerto for harpsichord, though only because he noted on the front page of the score that it could be, having originally specified violin and cello. This meant that there was a greater balance across the register than with the double violin peers which AV often wrote and this is what allows for the harpsichord arrangement. Richard Egarr has painstakingly recreated the solo passages, largely with arpeggios and broken chords, which made for fine decoration though I am not sure the Barbican Hall cavern showed this off as well as a smaller more sympathetic space might.

Before the first Telemann piece, the Frogs, Mr Egarr and the AAM had a bit of fun by playing the first movement of a Sinfonia in D by an unnamed composer who we were invited to identify. No answer given but it was plainly Italian so maybe Sammartini (GB) for the simple reason that he churned out a ton of them.

The Frogs is structured in the Italianate three movement fashion, not the Germanic four, and does everything you expect Telemann to do. It is laced with humour, is effortlessly easy on the ears and doesn’t let the soloist hog too much of the limelight. With plenty of riternello and suspension, it made a fine partner to the opening Vivaldi. Not bad for someone, GPT, who never set foot in Italy. The eponymous frog sound on the NB’s first entry is apparently created trough the use of bariolage, the rapid alternation of the same note between fingered and open strings (which Vivaldi was also partial to). There you go. NB was grace personified here, as she was throughout, stepping back into the band when required.

GPT churned out a fair few of his programmatic overture-suites, 600 to be exact, and it is pretty easy to see why the toffs he wrote them for lapped them up. This particular one takes as its inspiration the River Alster which joins the Elbe in Hamburg where GPT was director of its five main churches from 1721 until his death in 1767. (GPT stayed in Paris for a few months during this tenure where he was exposed to the French operatic style – with its dances –  which he incorporated into these suites). In this particular example he serves up an intro followed by eight subsequent movements each of which does exactly what it says on the tin. The “echo” of the third movement, oboes serenely imitating swans in the fifth, the chromatic crows and frogs of the seventh, the lyricism of the strings in the eighth, “Pan at rest” and the joyous winds and horns in the finale as the nymphs and shepherds leave the party. It is “lightweight” I suppose but when it is this much fun who cares.

GPT’s next contribution was one of a set of four concertos each for four violins. And nothing else. No continuo. No other instrumentation. Moreover it is in four movements – slow/fast/slow/fast – like the sonata di chiesa of old. There is plenty going on through its total ten minutes or so and all four violinists get time to shine, Ms Benedetti being joined by three excellent AAM regulars, I wish I could tell you who. Sorry.

The final piece was Vivaldi’s F major RV 569 which has pairs of horns and oboes, and a bassoon, added to the continuo and violins. Here NB took the lead in the outer two fast movements though the horns and wind also have a lot to say. The middle slow movement is the very model of brevity, even by Vivaldi’s economical standards, lasting just 20 bars. I loved it. Mind you I love every note of every concerto that AV ever wrote for violin (and most other instruments). I would it suspect take a lifetime of devotion and an acute and scholarly ear to “know” every one of AV’s five hundred-odd concertos. No matter. With music this immediate it doesn’t matter. Indeed Ms Benedetti encored with a chaconne-like slow movement from a Vivaldi concerto I think but no idea which.

Overworked in his lifetime I reckon, despite his devotion to the education of the orphans in the Ospedale in Venice, underpaid, never given a proper contract, and buried as a pauper in Vienna where he went to get a job when he fell out of fashion. Then ignored for one hundred and fifty years. Always a bit poorly as well. And a ginger, though you wouldn’t know from the stinky wig he is wearing above.

Still no Vivaldi, no Bach. And imagine how much poorer Western art music would have been without Johann Sebastian. GP Telemann, for me, is now quite as satisfying, though BUD and KCK probably disagreed on the night, but he is musical elegance, flair and invention personified. And his music, like Haydn’s later on, will make you happy. As, on every outing, do the AAM. The venue may not be ideal for the intimacy of Baroque even at this scale, but I hope the AAM were able to turn a few quid here because of that. Well deserved.

 

 

 

 

Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House review ****

Royal 20 A.II, f.10

Lessons in Love and Violence

Royal Opera House, 26th May 2018

Here is an extract from an illuminated manuscript showing Eddy II getting a crown. Or more precisely a second crown. Not sure what that is all about but given he was by reputation a high maintenance sort of fella maybe two crowns makes sense.

George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp had a massive hit, (by contemporary opera standards), with their previous collaboration Written on Skin, which in terms of repeat performances has gone down better than BB’s Peter Grimes. Having finally seen it at the ROH in January last year I can report that it is pretty much as good as it is cracked up to be. GB is a superb dramatic composer for drama and, specifically, for the very particular prose that MC creates. I was not entirely persuaded by the only play of MC’s that I have see, The Treatment (The Treatment at the Almeida Theatre review ***), but I think he is growing on me.

This time round they have taken seven “events” in the life of the infamous Edward II, wisely leaving out his messy end, to tell the story of his relationships with lover Gaveston, wife Isabel and rival Mortimer. The two royal kids are thrown into the somewhat unusual household and we also see associated flunkeys and down trodden hoi polloi who were suffering under Eddy’s spendthrift ways. We begin with the banishment of Mortimer, then Isabel joining the plot to murder Gaveston after seeing the desitution of the people, Gaveston predicting the King’s future and then being seized, the King disowning Isabel after Gaveston’s death, Mortimer and Isabel setting up a rival court and grooming young Eddy (to be the III), the King’s abdication at Mortimer’s behest and finally the young Edward III seizing control from his Mummy.

As you might surmise the focus of MC’s story here is more on the “domestic” struggle between the “couples” and less on the conflict between King and nobles. The relationship between Mortimer and Isabel and Isabel and Edward II is given as much weight as that between Gaveston and the King. This, together with the truncated plot, makes it very different from its most obvious precursor, Marlowe’s Edward II, or, more precisely, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. Now I happen to believe Marlowe’s play is one of the finest ever written, comparable with Shakespeare’s History Plays. But it does go on a bit. If MC and GB had attempted to set the whole story as an opera I would still be sitting there two weeks later. So Kent, Warwick, the Spensers and all the other nobles. Canterbury and the bishops, Hainault, the Welsh, the sadists and various other hangers-on are absent. As are France, fighting, Kenilworth, scythes and pokers. The key themes in Marlowe’s play, his two fingers to his own contemporary society, namely homo-eroticism, religion and social status are downplayed, Isabella’s role and the passion between the four main protagonists are foregrounded.

Extracting these key episodes and, in some cases, manipulating them to allow GB to weave his marvellous score around them, was a classy move by MC. His libretto, as in pretty much all he writes, swings from the prosaically direct to the cryptically poetic. I mean this as a compliment but his writing is not florid but quite angular with intriguing turns of phrase and clear delineations between characters. I gather that once they have agreed the shape of the work, MC goes off and writes the whole thing, with minimal consultation, before handing it over to GB, who then slowly and patiently builds up the music from the “bottom up”. At least that is what is sounded like from the interview in the programme. But given how distinctive, dark and clever MC’s approach is I can see why it works. GB knows the “voice’ he will write around and, as in their prior collaborations, he knows his musical style, which has itself been through iteration, will fit the libretto.

The music is superb. The orchestration is immensely colourful but GB only uses large scale forces occasionally. Most of the time small clusters of instruments are used to create different moods in each of the seven scenes, notably from bass clarinet, bassoons and brass. The percussion section gets to play with all sorts of new toys. A cimbalom gets an frequent airing. There are probably motifs, patterns and structures within this but you will need to find that out from someone who knows what they are talking about. All I know is that music and drama were perfectly matched across the compact 90 minutes. I think the emotional extremes were more pronounced that in Written on Skin which had a more mythic feel. GB ratcheted up key points in the action by plunging us into dramatic silences. In Scene 3 when Edward and Gaveston private tryst is interrupted by Isabel, the kids and the courtiers and in Scene 2 when the people impinge on the Court a rich musical chaos is invoked. Harmony and counterpoint are wound up into a ball before collapsing.

The production, courtesy of the genius director Katie Mitchell, regular design collaborator Vicki Mortimer, lighting from James Farncombe and movement from Joseph Alford, reflected the enclosed and intimate nature of the drama. Each scene was set in a royal bedroom, which revolved to offer a different perspective. This included the “private” entertainment in Scene 3 with Eddy II and Gaveston and the mirroring “public” entertainment in Scene 7. The “people” were given an audience before Isabel in the bedroom in Scene 2 to air their grievances. Mortimer’s household and the King’s imprisonment at Berkeley are also presented in the confined, intimate setting of the bedroom. A massive fish-tank, which drains of water and therefore life through the scenes, is both visual treat and prominent symbol. There is a Francis Bacon style painting on the wall: that probably tells you all you need to know about the uncomfortable, existential aesthetic the production seeks to traverse. There are one or two predictable Katie Mitchell cliches, slow motion soft-shoe shuffles anyone, but the tableau are undeniably effective, When you are stuck up in the Gods, (you would be hard pressed to be further away from the stage than I was, me being such a tightwad), this matters. At this distance the Court becomes a dolls house, an interesting perspective in itself, so the “choreography” that the director brings to proceedings, matters more than the close up expressiveness of the singers.

The ROH orchestra was on top form. Mind you if you have the composer himself conducting then there is little room for error. This is not a chamber opera, GB’s sound world is too rich, but some of the textures require various players to push their technique which they certainly did. I can’t really tell you much about the skil of the cast, they all amaze me, but Barbara Hannigan, as she always does, was off the scale as Isabel, vocally and as an actor. Stephane Degout bought a petulant, entitled air to Edward II, Peter Hoare’s Mortimer was a mixture of ambition and pragmaticism. Gyula Orendt stood out as Gaveston in his scenes with the King, a mystic of sorts. Samuel Boden’s sweet high-tenor stepped up very effectively towards the end as the Boy King and Ocean Barrington-Cook, (well done Mum and Dad for the name), artfully portrayed the damage done to her and her brother by having to witness the turmoil, despite not having a voiced part (another clever idea from the creators). The children were, I suppose, the ultimate recipients of the “lessons in love and violence” that we the audience were also privy to. Though the production was smartly modern-dress there was no crass attempt to draw any lessons for our own times but the plot, MC’s libretto and GB’s music combined to underscore the tension between the private and the political for those that wield power across history.

My guess is that if I saw and heard this again, perhaps from a more advantaged position, it would merit 5*. A few punters trotted out at various junctures which intrigued me. This surely is as digestible as contemporary. “modernist” opera gets. The historical subject is not obscure, the plot direct, music is beautiful, the libretto intriguing, the staging is excellent and it is hard to imagine the performances being topped. (the vocal parts were largely written for exactly this cast). Not much in the way of tunes and no arias, but surely the most cursory of examination would have revealed this in advance. The dissonance is never uncomfortable and is rooted in chordal progression. And it is short so why not see it through.

I would assume that GB and MC will, in the fullness of time, have another crack at this opera lark given how good they are it but I wonder if they have exhausted for now the “Medieval”. Like Written on Skin there is something of the illuminated manuscript here, (see what I have done there), a jewel like morality tale, (without all the God stuff). Suits me but with this amount of goodwill, (this is a seven way co-production), surely they could get away with something genuinely of the moment next time.